It’s happened again, another year of self mutilation and destruction much to the amazement of the onlookers…well those who take a glance up from their cameras that is. Honoring the nine emperor gods at Chinese temples throughout Southeast Asia on the ninth moon (or ninth month) of every year, the Vegetarian Festival – or Gin Je in Thai – has been celebrated throughout southern Thailand for over 100 years.
During the festival, devotees typically begin their processions at temples which are close to rivers or oceans, as it is believed that the spirits travel through water easier during their journey to earth.
According to Taoist mythology, these nine emperors are the fundamental gods responsible for keeping all functions of earth in order. They are represented in the sky by the Ursa Major constellation, which includes the Big Dipper. Temples dedicated to one or more of the nine emperor gods will act as a traveling point for them to channel through to the devotees, who embody them during the festival processions. During the channeling, the devotees enter into a trance-like state and march through the streets for hours, mutilating themselves or impaling with various objects such as swords, razors, axes or anything else they can find.
There are many different variations of the festival but all are based on the same principles of worshipping and paying homage to the nine emperor gods. In Thailand, the festival is an alteration of its original foundations as each region of Southeast Asia has its own adaptation. As the legend goes, the current ceremony was started in 1825 in Katu, Phuket by a group of Chinese fisherman who fell ill with Yellow Fever. As other medical methods to cure them failed at the time, they sought an alternative. They men embarked on an adventurous journey to try a new method of cleansing their bodies, adhering to a strict vegetarian diet. They also believed that a cleansing of the flesh was necessary, so they harmed themselves physically either through cutting, piercing or other forms of inflicting pain. The festival has since become one of the main festivals of Southern Thailand, spanning over nine days with preparations beginning weeks before.
The festival has become somewhat of a spectacle in Thailand. The most popular procession is paraded through Phuket Old Town and is the largest in the region, but Krabi’s procession has steadily grown annually. Some even say it is the better festival to visit, mainly because few tourists come to spectate, making access to key viewing points relatively easy. It is still an event for the locals, and by the locals with a large production, without the frenzy of crowds in Phuket.
Year after year the types of mutilation seem to intensify, appearing to be a competition of who can use the biggest and most intense objects to impale their faces with. Bicycles, wrenches, and gas pump handles are all now regular occurrences. What will be next?
Watching the procession in Krabi Town this year was a fascinating sight of varying levels of pain and endurance that devotees subjected themselves to in the name of their gods. It was quite a testament to their faith. The piercings and mutilations were only a part of the days affairs as we witnessed the parade from start to finish.
The first thing we noticed was the lack of shoes. This was a simple, trivial observation, but imagine walking through the streets of a town where temperatures approach 40 degrees Celsius, with no protection from the sun or the hot asphalt. Interestingly, the devotees don’t prepare themselves through the year by developing a pain threshold. Many of the devotees are just ordinary citizens with ordinary lives living in Krabi, some of which we recognized, but with spears going through their cheeks.
Devotees hold the belief that the nine emperor gods channel through them and remove all pain inflicted during the event. Judging from the looks on some faces however, there was a clear distinction between those possessed by outside powers and those still grounded. It is a sight to witness those feeling the pain, watching them become delirious during the march and needing to step out. Three men with large items stuck through their cheeks had to be removed from the parade due to their dehydration and medical attention needed. Last year, three men died from loss of blood, but those who perish on a holy day are believed to transcend into a better life through reincarnation.
Although men seem to hold down the bulk of the attention the festival is not restricted to them; plenty of women also participated as well. As many as 100 women with small spears through their faces were parading through the streets of Krabi Town, each of them with little to no signs of pain or distress on their faces.
In addition to the already gruesome spectacle is the use of firecrackers, and the dancing throughout the burning explosions (again with no shoes on). Teams of two carried spirit houses on their shoulders, and when firecrackers were ignited, devotees would run towards them, jumping and dancing through them.
It’s quite incredible to watch people who look as though they should be feeling such high levels of pain and distress, walking through the streets casually and calmly. It’s a sight to behold.
The Vegetarian Festival is a must see for anyone visiting Thailand during the ninth moon (usually around the end of September) of 2015, but not for the faint of heart.